Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Happiness Initiative - our first post!

Its here! The Happiness Initiative Blog has arrived. We will be posting our thoughts, recent articles and news about our project.  We also want to share your thoughts and ideas and repost your blog posts that are related to well-being, sustainability and happiness. Let us know what you think at

With that, our first post is the article John de Graaf and Laura Musikanski wrote about the Happiness Initiative for Earth Island Journal and gave out at their presentation at Bioneers 2011 today

A New Measure of Societal Progress Can Help Save the Planet — and Ourselves
By Laura Musikanski and John de Graaf    

“Open Happiness.” That tagline — the centerpiece of Coca-Cola’s 2009 advertising campaign — sounds like the perfect encapsulation of our culture’s definition of bliss. The idea of happiness on offer (or on sale) couldn’t be simpler: consumption equals contentment. Pop open a soda and all will be well.

If only it were that easy. It’s not, of course. Since antiquity, humans have struggled to define the good life. What makes us happy? How do we find personal fulfillment? What does progress look like?  How can we engage citizens and policy makers in answering these questions and doing something about it?  We’re involved with a project that tries to answer these questions.  We’ll tell you about later in this article, but first, let’s look at the broader issue.

Here in the United States, the search for the answers to those questions is something of a bedrock value. The quest for happiness is as American as apple pie. Our Declaration of Independence states that each person is endowed with “unalienable rights… among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Its author, Thomas Jefferson, didn’t mean hedonism — the right to keep partying and forget tomorrow. He meant something like the word Aristotle used when musing on humans’ purpose: eudemonia, which means contentment, or flourishing. Jefferson envisioned a society where all people thrive in all aspects of being. “The only orthodox purpose of government is to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible,” he wrote. 

Sounds great; Aristotle would likely approve. But, as the Coke ad campaign shows, something got lost in translation. Turns out that we’re defining happiness all wrong. For the last few generations, we’ve been using a single indicator — Gross Domestic Product, or GDP — to gauge society’s wellbeing. While GDP boasts a certain elegance of simplicity (it just adds up all the stuff bought and sold), it’s a blunt instrument for calculating whether we are, as individuals and communities, actually content. In fact, it measures all the wrong things. Our singular focus on GDP has made us obsessed with money and economic growth and has put the most meaningful goods — physical health, personal relationships, ecosystem resilience — as distant also-rans. 

It’s long past time for that to change. We must develop another measure of happiness. The effort to create new, more accurate indicators of progress takes on new urgency given the cascading destruction to the environment. Our understanding (or misunderstanding) of happiness isn’t only a threat to our personal wellbeing. It’s also a threat to the very ecosystems on which we depend. Redefining how we calculate progress has become a cultural imperative as well as a personal one. Turns out that our very continuation as a successful species might depend on it.  

Fuzzy Math 
So doesn’t GDP already measure happiness? Not really. What it measures is the churn of money in our economy. Anything we spend money on adds to the GDP — including cleaning up oil spills, treating cancer, or building jails. At the same time, some undeniably valuable things — taking care of a sick parent, volunteering at a food bank, or restoring a stream — are worth nothing since no one pays for them. During his 1968 presidential campaign, Senator Robert Kennedy, speaking at the University of Kansas, decried the perversity of this type of accounting:

Our gross national product ... if we should judge America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage …. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. … Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play… It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Such rhetoric would sound strange in today’s reactionary political environment. But just a few years before Kennedy’s speech, President Lyndon Johnson called for a society characterized more by “quality of life than quantity of goods.” Then, in the early seventies, came dire warnings of “limits to growth” and author Edward Abbey’s well-turned phrase that “unlimited growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” But the warnings fell on deaf ears. 

How did our national priorities become so skewed? The idea that economic growth could serve as a measurement for wellbeing took root during the Great Depression. People could not meet basic needs, and Congress did not have enough information about the economy to make good policy decisions. So in 1934 the government hired Keynesian economist Simon Kuznets to help. He created the equation:  Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + Net Exports = Gross National Product, or GNP. (The US government began using the term GDP in 1991.) The equation was a useful tool for telling government officials how efficient our economy was in producing the goods people needed. It was especially helpful during World War II, when the government used GNP to manage a booming war economy without causing so much inflation that people could not afford bread. 

When he created his formula, Kuznets warned that GNP did not actually measure wellbeing. He cautioned Congress that “the welfare of a nation can, therefore, scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”  Thirty years later, he again cautioned that overall economic growth wasn’t the same as general societal welfare: “Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth,” he said/wrote[?],  wrote, “between its costs and return, and between the short and the long term. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.”

But by then it was too late. Government economists had firmly established GNP growth as the main indicator of national progress. The idea that prosperity and growth were synonymous was further embedded in the national consciousness by the media, whose fixation on GNP made it the go-to thermometer on whether the country was feeling good or bad. Kuznets’ words went unheeded. 

Growing Backwards 

In the past 30 years, our Gross Domestic Product has doubled. During that same time, some other important figures have also increased: the number of threatened plant and animal species, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, the rates of diabetes and heart disease.  Meanwhile, almost all the income gained from that recent GDP growth went to the richest one percent of Americans, who saw their share of annual national income rise from eight to 23 percent, creating the widest income gap in the industrial world.

Many of us instinctively feel that disconnect between a growing economy and decreasing quality of life. And there are some other numbers that tell us we’re not alone in that feeling.  As Gregg Easterbrook pointed out in Time magazine (1/9/2005) “In polls taken by the National Opinion Research Center in the 1950s, about one-third of Americans described themselves as "very happy." The center has conducted essentially the same poll periodically since then, and the percentage remains almost exactly the same today.”
More troubling, Easterbrook also points out that, “Depending on what assumptions are used, clinical depression is 3 to 10 times more common today than two generations ago.”

Read more:,9171,1015883,00.html#ixzz1TKZfxx2l
 [John: I need you to insert some numbers/survey/studies here that show a flatline or decrease in American happiness. I have tried, to no avail, to track down McKibben’s Deep Economy, which has a section on this, including Gallup Numbers going back to the 50s. Do you have anything handy?? 2 or 3 well documented sentences would be fine.]  

The paradox of growing material prosperity co-existing with diminishing personal satisfaction has spurred a number of efforts to develop measurements of economic success that are more holistic than GDP. In 1995, the organization Redefining Progress developed what it calls “The Genuine Progress Indicator,” or GPI. The GPI takes the government’s GDP figures and adds housework and volunteerism while subtracting the costs of such things as divorce and environmental pollution. The result is sobering. According to Redefining Progress, the United States’ GPI has remained nearly flat or fallen since 1970, even as GDP has increased. 

Another alternative to GDP paints an even gloomier picture. According to the World Bank’s measure of Adjusted World Savings, wellbeing is actually declining. Adjusted world savings is an equation that accounts for investments in human capital, depletion of natural resources, and damage caused by pollution that has an impact on our wellbeing. Adjusted world savings has decreased by about 25 percent since the late 1990s. 

A quick glance at some other numbers helps illustrate the decline in human capital, at least in the United States. Yes, we have more stuff than we did 30 years ago, but we are working longer hours than we did then and carry frightening levels of personal debt. Our health [need some specific numbers here] is arguably the worst in the industrial world, even though we spend twice as much per person as other countries on health care. The CIA World Factbook ranks us 50th in the world in life expectancy and a recent University of Washington study actually found that, for the first time ever, life expectancy for women is declining in 30 percent of America’s counties.  A recent AARP/Time magazine study found that chronic loneliness among Americans over 45 has increased from 20 to 35 percent in the last decade. We suffer more anxiety and depression than is the case in other rich countries. And we are the only industrial country that does not guarantee health care, paid maternity leave, paid sick leave and paid vacations by law. 

In his Italian bestseller, Manifesto for Happiness, University of Siena economist Stefano Bartolini compares happiness data around the world and concludes that America is “the example not to follow.” Bartolini says Americans are caught in a vicious cycle.  Our consumption habits demand more debt and longer work hours, reducing our social connections, a central foundation of happiness. To compensate for the feelings of loneliness, we then buy even more stuff, seeking friendship through products and pristine nature experiences through long flights to tropical beaches. This consumption treadmill is reflected in faster economic growth than in Europe, but it exacerbates Americans’ social disconnection and the deterioration of our environmental commons.

Bartolini argues that the US’s rapid economic growth is more a matter of the inefficiency of the American economy in meeting our actual needs than it is an indicator of economic dynamism. In short, GDP obscures more than it reveals. The numbers give us a sense that we are wealthy, when in fact we are impoverished when it comes to the things we value most. 

Life After Growth 
Our culture’s laser-like focus on economic growth is dangerous beyond our own personal wellbeing: It’s also a threat to Earth’s ecosystems. Our economy has grown without regard for the environment, so that now the Global Footprint Network estimates we would need more than five planets to replicate the American lifestyle throughout the world. Obviously we can’t go on like this. But is there life after growth? 
The people of Bhutan think so. For a couple of generations, the tiny country high in the Himalayas has been using a more holistic gauge of happiness to make policy decisions and allocate resources. It began in 1972, when Jigme Wangchuck, the king of Bhutan, declared that, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”  

Since thenMore recently, the Bhutanese have been measuring happiness and using the results to make their country happier, healthier, and more sustainable. Bhutanese life expectancy has increased by 50 percent since King Wangchuck’s proclamation. Its environmental policies include keeping 60 percent of land under forest cover to protect precious habitats. At the same time, the Bhutanese economy has also grown. That matters a great deal for a poor country. But the Bhutanese consider material wellbeing as linked to, and dependent upon, improvements in other areas of life. Employing their own traditional knowledge and with assistance from experts around the world, they have identified nine domains that are central to happiness or well-being: Psychological Wellbeing; Physical Health; Work-Life Balance; Education; Cultural Vitality; Community Vitality; Environmental Quality; Material Wellbeing; and Democratic Governance. With the Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH) Index, no one domain is more important than any other. 

The Bhutanese conviction that happiness should take priority over economic growth has led to some perhaps radical decisions. For example, when Bhutan’s government was deciding whether to join the World Trade Organization, it considered how such a step would impact the country’s happiness. Government officials determined that membership (which is coveted by many countries) would result in a net loss of wellbeing. The country decided not to join the WTO — at least for now.  

Happiness is Catching 
Since Bhutan’s pioneering effort to better measure wellbeing, the idea has spread around the world.In the United States, efforts to measure progresssustainabilty more holistically began in 1991, when Sustainable Seattle developed the world’s first regional indicators of wellbeing. Today, more than 350 community organizations in the United States alone have developed some kind of happiness well-being or sustainability indicators. Local governments in Brazil, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom are also beginning to measure happiness. In July, the idea that GDP is an insufficient gauge of progress reached the highest level of global governance when the United Nations General Assembly invited member countries to “pursue … additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness.” The resolution noted that GDP “was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and wellbeing of people.” 

We’re involved with oOne of the newest measures efforts to measure and improve wellbeing, which is now the focus of Sustainable Seattle’s work. — which we helped to develop — is called Based on the most up-to-date social science and psychology, “ The Happiness Initiative”. Developed by the organization Sustainable Seattle and based on the most up-to-date social science and psychology, the Happiness Initiative begins measuring progress by asking people about their own personal wellbeing in nine domains very similar to those used in Bhutan’s GDH survey. Based on an idea from Victoria, BC, tThe initiative has attracted the interest of city officials in Seattle, Portland, OR, and Victoria, BCseveral other cities. “It might seem flaky at first to measure happiness,” says Dean Fortin, the Mayor of Victoria, but “the most important thing for any mayor is how happy are your citizens. If you can measure and mark out happiness, you can better understand how you are affecting your community and your neighborhood.” 

In Seattle, the city council plans to use the30-minute online happiness survey to help shape public policy, based on input from a series of “town meetings.”. About 67,000 people have taken the survey already. Most survey respondents said they had strong connections with family and friends (an average score of 81 out of 100) and high levels of interpersonal trust (71). But community participation (at 41) was low, as was time balance (43), and quality of their environment and access to nature (46). 

The mixed results don’t necessarily mean that people in Seattle are unhappy. But such scores are a warning sign that something in their lives is out of whack. For example, if someone has a low score on work-life balance, that will likely impact other domains upon which happiness rests: community vitality, health and psychological wellbeing. 

How can we correct such imbalances? The answer lies in the wisdom of ecology. 

It’s All Connected 
John Muir famously pointed out that, “Whenever you try to pick out anything by itself, you find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” That, in a sentence, is the essence of ecological insight. Every plant and animal is connected — in some fashion, no matter how long the thread — to every other one in a great global web. If this is true for the biology of Earth, why shouldn’t it be the same for human biology and human psychology? In fact, modern Western science — as well as the traditional wisdom of Eastern medicine — confirm this to be true. If you’re mentally depressed, you’ll be physically unhealthy, and vice versa. 

The fundamental weakness of GDP is that it ignores interconnections. It only covers a single metric: economic growth. It’s reductive. In contrast, The Happiness Initiative, like Bhutan’s GDH, is intuitive. That’s what the nine domains are all about — recognizing that personal happiness and societal progress are multi-ifaceted and directly connected. For long-term, sustainable economic wellbeing, we must have environmental, social, and personal wellbeing. For long-term environmental health, we must have economic, social, and personal health. And so on. 

The unbalanced lives that many of us lead help illustrate the idea. People with poor time balance make poor environmental stewards — they are less likely to recycle, more likely to use disposables, more likely to use high-energy transportation like driving and flying. Time pressure also means less connection with nature and with each other. Families today vacation together one-third less than a generation ago, and children seldom spend sustained unstructured time in the natural world.

“Sustainability” can sometimes seem an awkward, wonky concept, but it’s really very simple. It’s about the survival and wellbeing of people and other living creatures. You know it when you see it: Like when your grandmother used kitchen scraps to feed the chickens and gave eggs to the family down the street, or when your grandfather told you not to waste anything and treat others with respect. It’s really just common sense: taking care of ourselves, of each other, and of our environment. Basic things, actions that make us feel happy. 

Coca-Cola got one thing right: it is time to “open happiness,” but in a manner that might actually work.   It is time to ask ourselves and our governments what really makes us happy, how we can find lasting fulfillment, and what genuine, sustainable progress actually looks like.  Can we engage citizens and policy makers to answer these questions and do something about them so that all might really be well?  Our future depends on the answer.

John de Graaf, a member of the Earth Island Board of Directors, is author of the forthcoming book, What’s the Economy For, Anyway? Laura Musikanski is a lawyer, MBA, and Executive Director of Sustainable Seattle. To learn more about The Happiness Initiative, visit:

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